Advertisers missing the mark with teens

Teen billionaires. Despite the cruelty of the concept to most of us toiling boomers, the term pretty much reflects the dominance that teens and young adults have lately assumed over the communications and entertainment business....

Teen billionaires. Despite the cruelty of the concept to most of us toiling boomers, the term pretty much reflects the dominance that teens and young adults have lately assumed over the communications and entertainment business.

This tender little group of 12- to 24-year-olds has considerably more impact today than just a few years ago, when they had purchase influence but weren’t yet tyrannizing our business turf.

Many of these young entrepreneurs are building and running successful business ventures. You just have to look at the front cover of almost any business magazine to see that. Teenage hackers, meanwhile, are busily playing havoc with our government and business institutions.

Marketers have always understood the importance of young trendsetters, but this current group of overachievers has leapfrogged ahead to another universe. They’ve got money, they’ve got credit, they’ve got jobs and the world is at their techno-savvy fingertips.

So perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised at the strike-out rate of old-style traditional marketers trying to reach this group.

A few weeks back, I read with amusement an article entitled: ‘Television giants flop in the Web world.’ The story, illustrated with a picture of Disney powermonger Michael Eisner, a man not well-acquainted with the word flop, explains why Disney’s was a bust. But I didn’t need to read the article to know that and its tween-targeted offshoot Zoog are, well, amateur in design and much too childish for their audiences.

The idea that the networks have been humbled in their attempts to become Internet players struck me as ironic, considering that network television is so dominant in the United States; it accounts for two-thirds of time spent watching TV each day. Despite all their money, resources, experience and cross-promotional ability, the networks have been unable to beat the big portals like Yahoo! and America Online, which were developed by – you guessed it – young billionaires.

Then there’s the whole matter of clickthrough rates. According to a Reuters report on a Nielsen/Net Ratings study, kids 2-12 click on Web banner ads five times more often than teens 12-17, and eight times more often than kids 18-20. The more money kids have to spend, and the more desirable they are as a target market, it seems, the less they’re interested in looking at ads. The researchers gently suggested that teens would click on ads that target their interest or offer free goods or useful information. Notwithstanding the general decline in clickthrough rates for banner ads, how can so many advertisers miss the mark with teens and young adults by using ads that appeal to six-year-olds?

Aside from improved teen and young adult panels, such as the Cassandra Report from Youth Intelligence, and YTV’s tween report, there’s not much progressive research being undertaken to improve our understanding of the value systems of this group.

Ditto with respect to their media habits. If we’re going to determine our revenue models for the future, we’ve got to understand the fallout of media usage patterns that include cell phones, ICQ, the Web and shows like Survivor.

It seems to me that we’ve almost lost access to the young because of their connection to a worldwide non-commercial peer group for their music, entertainment and information needs.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the success of a young entrepreneurial businessperson no longer depends on their progression within a management hierarchy. These are people who have figured out their own business models and are building structures without any of the traditional values.

In a family environment, the teenager rules the roost in terms of what to buy, eat and watch. Their tastes are strongly held and inviolate to debate. It is, thankfully, a short period, and when they do leave home, they leave the family imprinted with altered and enlightened habits and tastes.

In our business lives, these young adults are leaving home before we have truly grasped what makes them tick. If we’re going to learn how to communicate with them, now is the time to invest in our future.

Janet Callaghan is a marketing and media analyst, specializing in integration and convergence strategies. She can be reached via e-mail at